Roberto Bolaño: The Last Interview & Other Conversations, p.1Roberto Bolaño
Compilation and translation © Melville House Publishing, 2009
Melville House Publishing
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Brooklyn, NY 11201
“Alone Among the Ghosts” © Marcela Valdes. First published in The Nation, December 8, 2008. Research was supported by a grant from The Investigative Fund of The Nation Institute.
“Literature is Not Made From Words Alone,” by Héctor Soto and Matías Bravo, originally appeared in Capital, Santiago, December 1999, and is reprinted here by permission of Capital.
“Reading is Always More Important Than Writing” © Bomb Magazine, New Art Publications, and its contributors. First appeared in Bomb Magazine, Issue #78, Winter 2002, pp. 49-53. All rights reserved. The Bomb Archive can be viewed at www.bombsite.com.
“Positions are Positions and Sex is Sex” first appeared in Revista Cultural TURIA, n° 75 (ISSN: 0213-4373, 2005, pages 254-265) as “Roberto Bolaño: ‘Todo escritor que escribe en español debería tener influencia cervantina,’ ” by Eliseo Alvarez, reprinted here by permission of Revista Cultural TURIA, www.arce.es, [email protected]
“The Last Interview” © Mónica Maristain. First published by Playboy Mexico, July 2003, and first published in English by Stop Smiling, Issue 38, pp. 50-59. Reprinted here by permission of the interviewer.
Cover photo by Basso Cannarsa
Library of Congress Control Number: 2009939057
Alone Among the Ghosts
I. “Literature is Not Made From Words Alone”
Interview by Héctor Soto and Matías Bravo
Capital, Santiago, December 1999
II. “Reading is Always More Important Than Writing”
Interview by Carmen Boullosa,
translated by Margaret Carson
Bomb, Brooklyn, Winter 2002
III. “Positions are Positions and Sex is Sex”
Interview by Eliseo Álvarez
Turia, Barcelona, June 2005
IV. The Last Interview
Interview by Mónica Maristain
Playboy, Mexico edition, July 2003
About the Author
ALONE AMONG THE GHOSTS
THE PART ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Shortly before he died of liver failure in July 2003, Roberto Bolaño remarked that he would have preferred to be a detective rather than a writer. Bolaño was fifty years old at the time, and by then he was widely considered to be the most important Latin American novelist since Gabriel García Márquez. But when Mónica Maristain interviewed him for the Mexican edition of Playboy, Bolaño was unequivocal. “I would have liked to be a homicide detective, much more than a writer,” he told the magazine. “Of that I’m absolutely sure. A string of homicides. Someone who could go back alone, at night, to the scene of the crime, and not be afraid of ghosts.”
Detective stories, and provocative remarks, were always passions of Bolaño’s—he once declared James Ellroy among the best living writers in English—but his interest in gumshoe tales went beyond matters of plot and style. In their essence, detective stories are investigations into the motives and mechanics of violence, and Bolaño—who moved to Mexico the year of the 1968 Tlatelolco massacre and said he was briefly imprisoned during the 1973 military coup in his native Chile—was also obsessed with such matters. The great subject of his oeuvre is the relationship between art and infamy, craft and crime, the writer and the totalitarian state.
In fact, all of Bolaño’s mature novels scrutinize how writers react to repressive regimes. Distant Star (1996) grapples with Chile’s history of death squads and desaparecidos by conjuring up a poet turned serial killer. The Savage Detectives (1998) exalts a gang of young poets who joust against state-funded writers during the years of Mexico’s dirty wars. Amulet (1999) revolves around a middle-aged poet who survives the government’s 1968 invasion of the Autonomous University of Mexico by hiding in a bathroom. By Night in Chile (2000) depicts a literary salon where writers party in the same house in which dissidents are tortured. And Bolaño’s final, posthumous novel, 2666, is also spun from ghastly news: the murder, since 1993, of more than 430 women and girls in the Mexican state of Chihuahua, particularly in Ciudad Juárez.
Often these victims disappear while on their way to school or returning home from work or while they’re out dancing with friends. Days or months later, their bodies turn up—tossed in a ditch, the middle of the desert or a city dump. Most are strangled; some are knifed or burned or shot. One-third show signs of rape. Some show signs of torture. The oldest known victims are in their thirties; the youngest are elementary-school age. Since 2002 these murders have been the subject of a Hollywood film (Bordertown, starring Jennifer Lopez), several nonfiction books, a number of documentaries and a flood of demonstrations in Mexico and abroad. According to Amnesty International, over half of the so-called “femicides” have not resulted in a conviction.
Bolaño was fascinated by these cold cases long before the murders became a cause célèbre. In 1995 he sent a letter from Spain to his old friend in Mexico City, the visual artist Carla Rippey (who is portrayed as the beautiful Catalina O’Hara in The Savage Detectives), mentioning that for years he’d been working on a novel called “The Woes of the True Policeman.” Though he had other manuscripts on submission to publishers, this book, Bolaño wrote, “is MY NOVEL.” Set in northern Mexico, in a town called Santa Teresa, it revolved around a literature professor who had a fourteen-year-old daughter. The manuscript had already topped “eight hundred thousand pages,” he boasted; it was “a demented tangle that surely no one will understand.”
Surely, it seemed so then. Bolaño was forty-three when he sent this missive, and as near to failure as he’d ever been. Though he’d published two books of poetry, co-written a novel and spent five years entering short story contests all over Spain, he was so broke that he couldn’t afford a telephone line, and his work was almost entirely unknown. Three years earlier, he and his wife had separated; around the same time he was diagnosed with the liver disease that would kill him eight years later. Though Bolaño won many of the short story contests he entered, his novels were routinely rejected by publishers. Yet late in 1995 he would begin an astonishing rise.
The turning point was a meeting with Jorge Herralde, the founder and director of the publishing house Editorial Anagrama. Though Herralde couldn’t buy Nazi Literature in the Americas—it was snapped up by Seix Barral—he invited Bolaño to visit him in Barcelona. There Bolaño told him about his cash problems and the desperation he felt over the many rejections he’d received. “I told him that … I’d love to read his other manuscripts, and shortly afterward he brought me Distant Star (later I found out that it had also been rejected by other publishing houses, including Seix Barral),” the editor recalls in an essay. Herralde, however, found the book extraordinary. Thereafter, he published all of Bolaño’s fiction: nine books in seven years.
During that time, as each volume found more readers than its predecessor, Bolaño toiled away on his demented tangle. The work involved writing, of course, but also investigating. By setting his novel in Santa Teresa, a fictional town in Sonora, rather than in Juárez, Bolaño was able to blur the lines between what he knew and what he imagined. But he was deeply concerned with understanding the circumstances facing Juárez and its inhabitants.
Once a watering hole for Americans during Prohibition, Juárez grew rapidly after NAFTA was implemented in the 1990s. Hundreds of assembly plants sprang up, luring hundreds of thousands of destitute residents from all over Mexico to take jobs that often paid as little as 50 cents an hour. The same traits that made Juárez appealing to NAFTA manufacturers—good roads, proximity to a large consumer market, an abundance of unorganized labor—also made it an ideal hub for narcotraficantes. By 1996, some forty-two million people and seventeen million vehicles were traveling through the city every year, making it one of the busiest transit points on the US-Mexico border and a favorite for illegal crossings. The town transformed itself into a crossroads for cheap and illicit commerce; as it did, poor, hardworking women began turning up dead.
Juárez and its fictional counterpart bear little resemblance to the cultural centers where Bolaño set most of his novels—even Distant Star takes place in the most important university town in southern Chile. There are no writing workshops amid the shantytowns of Santa Teresa, nor gangs of rebellious poets. Like all of Bolaño’s fiction, 2666 teems with writers, artists and intellectuals, but these characters come from elsewhere: from Europe, South America, the United States and Mexico City. Stuck in the badlands of northern Mexico, the same region where Cormac McCarthy’s gang of merry killers rampage in Blood Meridian, Santa Teresa is literally and culturally parched.
The link between this industrial desert and the settings of Bolaño’s previous novels lies, like a scarlet letter, on the book’s front cover. The devilish date 2666—which appears nowhere in the pages of 2666—sends us on a scavenger hunt to Amulet, where it crops up in the waking nightmares of a woman named Auxilio Lacouture. Visions of hell besiege Auxilio from the novel’s earliest pages, when she peers into a flower vase and sees “everything that people have lost, everything that causes pain and that is better off forgotten.”
Later, as she walks through the streets of Mexico City, she has another evil hallucination. It’s the middle of the night. The streets she crosses are vacant and windy. At that hour, Auxilio says, Avenida Reforma “turns into a transparent tube, a cuneiform lung where you feel the city’s imaginary breath,” and Avenida Guerrero “looks like nothing more than a cemetery … a cemetery from the year 2666, a cemetery forgotten under a dead or unborn eyelid, bathed in the dispassionate fluids of an eye that, for wanting to forget something, has ended forgetting everything.”
2666, like all of Bolaño’s work, is a graveyard. In his 1998 acceptance speech for the Rómulo Gallego’s Prize, Bolaño revealed that in some way everything he wrote was “a letter of love or of goodbye” to the young people who died in the dirty wars of Latin America. His previous novels memorialized the dead of the 1960s and ’70s. His ambitions for 2666 were greater: to write a postmortem for the dead of the past, the present and the future.
THE PART ABOUT THE CRIMES
Bolaño put off the possibility of a liver transplant so he could complete 2666, but the illness grew more acute and he died before he reached the book’s end. After the funeral, his friend and literary executor, the Spanish book critic Ignacio Echevarría, combed through the manuscripts in Bolaño’s office to assemble the work that Anagrama published in 2004, and that Natasha Wimmer, the gifted translator of The Savage Detectives, has brought into English.
Bolaño marked his manuscripts carefully. He may have been reckless, but he wasn’t stupid, and he knew that he was dying. Yet Anagrama broke with his wishes on one point. For years Bolaño had talked about 2666 as one book, bragging that it would be “the fattest novel in the world,” but in the final months of his life, he decided to break up the novel’s five sections and publish them as separate books. The reasons behind this impulse were practical. Bolaño would leave behind two young children, to whom he dedicated 2666, and he wanted to provide for them after his death. Five short novels, he figured, would earn more money than one backbreaking monster. Thankfully, his family and Anagrama did him the favor of following his original vision. As Echevarría notes in his epilogue, “although the five parts that comprise 2666 may be read independently, they not only share many elements (a subtle web of recurring themes), they also join unequivocally in a unified design.” Meanwhile, in the United States, the book’s publisher, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, hedged its bets: putting out both a 2.75-pound hardcover and a three-volume slip-cased paperback edition.
Either way, 2666 isn’t for the faint of heart. The book is nearly 900 pages long, and charting its locations would yield something like an airline flight map, red dots marking landings in Argentina, England, France, Germany, Italy, Mexico, Poland, Prussia, Romania, Russia, Spain and the United States. As if such globe-trotting wasn’t enough, the novel also contains scores of characters and covers almost an entire century of history.
Bolaño once wrote that in the Americas, all modern fiction springs from two sources: The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and Moby-Dick. The Savage Detectives, with its carousing characters, is Bolaño’s novel of friendship and adventure. 2666 chases the white whale. For Bolaño, Melville’s novel held the key to writing about “the land of evil”; and like Melville’s saga, 2666 can be stunning or soporific, depending on your taste for the slow burn. I’ve read it three times, and I find it to be dense, brilliant and horrifying, with scattered scenes of cleverness and fun.
Page one plunges us into the lives of four European academics who adore the books of a reclusive German author named Benno von Archimboldi almost as much as they enjoy luring each other to bed. Bolaño’s approach to the murders in the first two parts of 2666—“The Part About the Critics” and “The Part About Amalfitano”—is coy, elliptical. Not for him the rapid gore of Patricia Cornwell or Stephen King. The first, glancing mention of the crimes doesn’t occur until forty-three pages into the book, and only two of the three professors who visit Santa Teresa in the first part even hear about the murders. They are visitors to Mexico, and though they dabble in sex tourism, their wealth and indifference insulate them from the realities of the city.
“The Part About Amalfitano”—which clearly derives from the book Bolaño described to Rippey in 1995—moves closer to the locals, while still keeping the murders at arm’s length. If part one is a brainy romance, part two is an existential drama. A Chilean philosophy professor who has left Europe for the University of Santa Teresa founders in quiet desperation. He fears that he’s going crazy—a voice speaks to him at night. He fears that the city’s violence may reach out and grab his daughter—a black car keeps appearing just outside his house.
Careful readers will spy hints of what’s to come, like so many red fingerprints, throughout these two sections, but it isn’t until the third part, “The Part About Fate,” that the violence of Santa Teresa spills into the foreground. Standing in a bar, a naïve American reporter sees a man across the room punch a woman: “The first blow made the woman’s head snap violently and the second blow knocked her down.” The reporter had driven to Mexico to see another kind of beating—a fight between an American boxer and his Mexican rival—but he soon learns that the real blows in Santa Teresa occur outside the ring. Befriended by some of the seedier elements of the city, he is shown what appears to be the video of a woman being raped. He meets the chief suspect in the city’s murders, and he winds up peeling out of town afraid of the police.
This noir escapade is prelude to a dirge. “The Part About the Crimes” opens in January 1993 with the description of the corpse of a thirteen-year-old girl and ends 108 bodies later during Christmas 1997. Each one of these forensic dis
Andrea Pacheco Martínez, thirteen, was kidnapped on her way out of Vocational School 16…. When she was found, two days later, her body showed unmistakable signs of strangulation, with a fracture of the hyoid bone. She had been anally and vaginally raped. There was tumefaction of the wrists, as if they had been bound. Both ankles presented lacerations, by which it was deduced that her feet had also been tied. A Salvadorean immigrant found the body behind the Francisco I School, on Madero, near Colonia Álamos. It was fully dressed, and the clothes, except for the shirt, which was missing several buttons, were intact.
Those who’ve sampled Bolaño’s other fictions will recognize the cool detachment of this passage. But the level of grisly detail is like nothing in any of Bolaño’s previous works—or in any of the newspaper accounts he could have read. His descriptions of the murder investigations, and of the incidents surrounding the trial of the chief suspect, are equally precise and uncanny.
How did Bolaño become so intimate with the details of these crimes, and the procedures of the local police, when he lived an ocean away? His other investigative novels were written after the fresh blood of history had dried; even then, Bolaño had always drawn from firsthand knowledge of the events or from that of his friends. Yet at the time he was writing “The Part About the Crimes,” information about the murders in Juárez was quite restricted. To pull off this kind of hyperrealism, he must have had the help of someone on the inside, someone whose interest in autopsy was as relentless as his own.
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